The author finds much wisdom in Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Spheres.
Gabe Suarez, whose work in the field of self-defense I quite admire, wrote an article for the May 2004 issue of Black Belt magazine in which he analyzed the five scrolls of Musashi’s Book of Five Spheres and discussed their relevance in modern times. My Wing Chun Kung Fu instructor thought so highly of Gabe’s article that he discussed it in class. This prompted me to go back to my well-worn copy of the text to reread it. In the course of that I thought I might try to distill some of the lessons I’ve taken from it. These aren’t necessarily the most important thoughts Musashi relates in the text, but they’re the ones I’ve taken most to heart in the context of my martial development and the ongoing task of self-defense.
1. Be a Pragmatist.
According to translator Thomas Cleary, Musashi wrote deliberately in a clear, almost crude style lacking the flowery subtext of his contemporaries. His prose carries the tone, at least when rendered in English, of someone tremendously confident in the remarkably simple principles he is relating – principles that can be applied to different spheres of human activity. He saw only four walks of life and he saw martial skill as essential to life. He did not believe in overcomplicating things. “When you attain a certain discernment of the principles of mastering swordsmanship,” he wrote, “then, when you can defeat one opponent at will, this is tantamount to being able to defeat everyone in the world.”
2. Be a Skeptic.
Musashi, writing hundreds of years ago, decried empty commercialization and poor teaching in words just as relevant then as to today’s martial arts community. “The field of martial arts,” he said, “is particularly rife with flamboyant showmanship, with commercial popularization and profiteering on the part of both those who teach the science and those who study it.” The self-defense industry today is rife with McDojos, strip mall money pits, fly-by-night “fear no man” schemes, and desperate but ridiculous attempts to be different in a market flooded with just-invented combat systems claiming fictional historical roots. It seems the 17th century was not terribly different than the 21st – for good reason. Human nature has not changed in the intervening years. We’d all do well to remember Musashi’s warnings as we seek qualified and effective instruction.
3. Nothing Worth Doing is Easy.
“The long sword seems heavy and unwieldy to everyone at first,” Musashi wrote, “but everything is like that when you first take it up.” That’s the lesson I remember most often in my daily life. Musashi understood, hundreds of years ago, something that too few of us remember today. When you start something new, it’s difficult at first. You have to stay with it or you will never accomplish anything worthwhile. I spent the first three months of my Wing Chun Kung Fu training wondering if I should quit, but I remembered Musashi – and I resolved to stick with it. When I finally started to “get it,” I was glad I had not given up.
4. Use All Your Tools.
Musashi’s “School of Two Skies” was devoted to the simultaneous use of the katana and wakizashi – something that I gather was not done by all schools of swordsmanship at the time. “When your life is on the line,” he wrote, “you want to make use of all your tools. No warrior should be willing to die with his swords at his side, without having made use of his tools.” To use both hands at the same time is a fundamental principle of Wing Chun Kung Fu, for example, but it is also a good lesson for life. Learning to do multiple things rather than fixating on a single task is the only way to maximize your effort (and therefore your results). You have two arms and two legs – learn to use all of them. You have multiple tools at your disposable in all venues of life – and thus you should learn to employ them. If you fail “with your tools at your side,” with your resources untapped, you have squandered the opportunities afforded you.
5. Don’t Get Attached to Material Things.
“You should not have any fondness for a particular weapon, or anything else, for that matter,” Musashi said flatly. “Pragmatic thinking is essential.” A tool is a tool – and only that. No material object should be more important to you than the people in your life and the accomplishment of your goals. I thought so highly of this advice when I first read it that I incorporated it in my sword-and-sorcery novel, Demon Lord. Becoming despondent over the loss of a given object, or getting so sentimental about any material commodity that you go to pieces if you don’t have it, has always struck me as pointless anguish. I view material objects as disposable. Just as no employee should be considered indispensable in running a business, no tool or object in your possession should be so valued that its loss leaves you unable to cope.
6. Move Like You Walk.
Musashi speaks of moving on the heels in executing footwork – not on the balls of the feet and certainly not on the toes. This is very natural, for it is the same way we walk: heel to toe. Movement can be precise or it can be sloppy, but if it is not natural, it will never be as useful to you as the mechanics of your body’s instinctive motion. In Wing Chun Kung Fu, for example, footwork is executed from the heels and is extremely rooted and stable as a result. More abstractly, you should move through your life at a natural, unaffected gait. If you don’t feel natural fundamentally, even when working hard at something, you’re doing it wrong.
7. If You Have to Stop and Think About it, You Don’t Know it Well Enough.
The “mind of no mind” is a well-known concept in Japanese swordsmanship and in the martial arts in general, but I’d be remiss if I did not include it in this list. More broadly, the only time you can ever be said to truly know how to do something is if you can do it naturally, without thinking about it. If you’re startled by an incoming blow to the head and you instinctively perform a block that you’ve trained for hours on end – if you stop the blow without having to think about doing so – you’ve learned that block. It’s part of you. Any activity that you can do without conscious thought is something you truly know. Conversely, if you believe you’ve mastered a skill but you “choke” when trying to perform it, you don’t know it well enough yet.
Musashi was, by all accounts, not a complicated man. It’s possible he wasn’t an altogether pleasant man, either. He was scarred from congenital syphilis, led an ascetic life largely unconnected to other human beings, and is known primarily for his killing of scores of other men in consensual (but largely unnecessary) duels. Despite this, he took the time to write words that still speak to us today, leaving us with timeless lessons for the martial arts and for life. Of all the books in your library, you cannot call yourself a martial artist and never read Miyamoto Musashi.
His words are relevant both to fighting and to not fighting – the goal towards which we all strive.